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(Following a previous post and a reply from Claire at Anggarrgoon)

Is it possible to reduce the intrusiveness of video taping someone?

Before I launch into this... let me just say: "flashing lights and ethical alarm bells!". What I'm going to talk about is the paradox of fully informing your informants that you're going film them, and then trying your hardest to seem like you're not there!

The dream of every fieldworker is source data that is totally "natural" conversation. That is, to listen in on conversations as if we were a fly on the wall. The scare quotes are around natural because of that pesky observer's paradox. The magic of video in a sense is that it now lets us view observer's paradox in full colour. But as always, we soldier on, hoping that the conversation we gather is not too unnatural. There are a few things that you could do though.

Move away

I guess the most obvious thing to do would be to put some distance between yourself and the people you're filming. This doesn't give great detail though. Its hard to get much of a sense of what's going on from too far back. Really it depends on the situation. Setting the camera up on a tripod and leaving the scene will not only increase the quality of your recording (in the sense that it wont be so shaky), but will also give the filmees a chance to forget about the filming.

Move even further away

Joe Blythe, from Sydney Uni tells me he would set up a recorder and leave for a couple of hours, in the hope of getting a few precious minutes of real data. If possible, get yourself a set up where you can record for a long time, and record as much as possible. This is a bit tricky... its pretty difficult to do this as there isn't much equipment out there which will let you record all day, every day continuously. But there is a field which I guess is closely related to what I'm talking about here - surveillance - and they don't seem to mind letting the cameras roll 24/7. I'll return to this in a minute.

Turn the record light off

Turning off the recording light (this is not possible on some cameras, and some don't have them anyway) can help too, especially if you're recording at night. The recording light is a little red LED on the front of the camera that indicates when recording is taking place. If you've already signalled your intention to record by whipping out the camera (after asking of course!), I'd say its no ethical dilemma to not have the red LED drawing people's gaze to the lens.

Record at night

Night time is potentially a great time to record conversation. Sitting around in the haus win, with only fire light would be a nice environment to record conversational data... if you can. Many cameras have a night vision option that works with infra-red light. You may however find the inbuilt infrared light insufficient, in which case you could buy an attachment for your camera or build your own (swapping Infra Red LEDs into an existing LED torch or starting from scratch).


Finally, and this is perhaps the most hair-brained of ideas, but you could set yourself up to record video in the place where you do your regular elicitation. Making video-taping a part of the scenery may not defeat observer's paradox, but it will reduce camera shyness over time. Consider having a permanent set-up of cameras wired into your place of elicitation. You could do this on a budget by using regular video surveillance equipment from a hobby electronics store. Radio Frequency transmitted equipment even exists. Web-cams are another option.

The real question with this is whether you'll take the hit in image quality. The smaller lenses in surveillance gear and web-cams are not that great, and you also need to make sure that the frame rate stays up. If you're trying to capture subtleties of movement like facial expressions, you'll need standard frame rates at full resolution. And you'll need to be close to the subject(s).

To me a 640x480 pixel 30 frames per second video is sufficient most work. This is what most web-cams are capable of, so if you're taking a laptop into the field then maybe give this a go. Maybe take two and shoot from a couple of angles? The bonus is that you get good file metadata on your recordings too, so it's easier to line up intermittent audio recordings with a video stream (but be sure to keep your clocks up to date and in sync!)

Most surveillance gear is analogue, so either you record to tape, or you figure out some way of digitising the materials in the field. If you have a laptop, you'll need an analogue to digital convertor, otherwise some portable video devices are capable of digitising analogue signals (just be sure the quality is good enough for you), and as an added bonus you could use these to play back your elicitation stimulus materials (like the excellent ones available from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics). But then you'll really want to video them watching the videos, so maybe that doesn't work...

24/7 surveillance

By choosing equipment that lets you record for longer periods (tape typically restricts you to 60-90 minute chunks), you can keep the camera rolling. You may choose to discard some of that material in the field, but the more you capture, the more comfortable everyone will become around the camera - hopefully to the point where camera shyness is eliminated or significantly reduced. If you go digital, it'll be massive amounts of data. Consider a digitiser that compresses your footage, and figure out storage before you go.

That pesky paradox

Video is an excellent format for documenting fieldwork. Digital recording equipment is just starting to get exciting as the consumer market is starting to take an interest in the same capabilities that we're looking for. In the end I think the observer's paradox is unavoidable, but that doesn't mean you can't try to reduce its effects, and certainly eliminating camera shyness is achievable.

I've got a project on the back burner to investigate more closely the quality of cheaper sources for video recording... I'll blog that once I'm done. I'm particularly interested in the metadata stored in the video files and a potential work-flow for massive amounts of video data. If you've given this a go yourself, then please let me know. I'm hoping to do some experiments with Joe Blythe next year.


Hi Tom,
yes I'm looking forward to trying the experiment with surveillance cameras. I think for my purposes this will be the most promising bet. The reasons I hold hope for this strategy is that I think it should allow small cameras to get up close. The other would be the increased recording time by recording direct to disk. This should allow me to put in place some of the techniques that I have had more success with, with straight audio that is.

Briefly, my attempts at recording naturalistic conversation on video were pretty much flops. I know how unsuccessful I was, cause the talk is very different to the audio recordings I've made, where I think I was much more successful in reducing the observers paradox. Comparing my video data to my audio data makes it very clear just how real the observer's paradox is. It's really tough with video.

I went into the field with big camera and big tripod, all very nice gear. A big camera like that is a very in-your-face experience for people. People tend to either bottle up, or perform for the camera. Even when I set it up at a distance and walked away, it was hard to get people to ignore the equipment. The talk was stilted, people gave little glances at the machine every now and then, they whispered, and basically wouldn't relax. I know I need to persist to get better results, yet with limited time in the bush I largely plumped for the strategy that gives me better results. That's straight audio. The 60 minute limit on the video tapes I had was the killer. Let's say people do eventually forget about the camera, but it takes them 45 min to forget about it. If you have to change tapes mid conversation, you've blown it. Game over.

However, it all depends what you're trying to achieve. If you're studying person reference in naturalistic conversation (like I am), then reducing the observer's paradox is critical. If you're looking at gesture and spacial orientation etc, then that may be less important than reducing the observer's paradox. It really depends on what's most important for you. Personally I really want to get some naturalistic conversation on video, cause I am interested in gesture and facial expression, pointing etc as well. Discussions with Tom have made it apparent that it's always worth going back to the drawing board. So I haven't given up yet. I also know that even though the videos I’ve done aren’t as naturalistic as I’d like, they might be useful for other reasons, and may be really interesting for the people in the video, if nothing else. So it’s worth persisting.

Great thread in general.

Most of the ACLA project is conversational data, though often child-directed. We use a combination of cameras and MDs and have found that the biggest contributer to 'natural' conversation has just been becoming a part of the furntiture and doing a lot of similar types of recordings over a number of years. A comparison of the sort of data we get now compared with 4 yrs ago is amazing.

Joe - a lot of what you suggest we also do and have found it pretty successful eg making cups of tea which involve researcher non/presence.

Another good trick for getting 'natural' conversation: Train a language worker to use the camera and have them understand what you are after. They will be the ones to initiate conversation and the camera is less intrusive with the LW on the other end. Again we have had a lot of success with this.

Sophie was also talking about recording people in cars on Claire's blog. The car noise is quite bad but if you also mike another person up on an MD you can usually pick up most of the conversation. Because I am distracted driving I am generally ignored and the conversation appears quite natural.

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